“Lowbrow” is a word fraught with symbolism. The term, which originated in California in the 1970s to describe a wave of colorful, energetic art inspired by sundry slices of the zeitgeist—punk rock, ’50s hot rod culture—creates a class distinction in art. Obliquely, it implies that a work is the product of an underdeveloped subculture—and that, as such, it requires less time, thought and skill than its highbrow counterparts.
Such stereotypes are patently untrue, though, and lowbrow art’s rejection of them is an essential element of its cult-worthy triumph. Lowbrow’s products seethe with youthful, freewheeling rebellion—a revolution that is itself an affirmation of the artistry inherent in all levels of all cultures.
Rebels understands that. The Mirador Gallery show focuses on three underground artists with Chicano and Native backgrounds whose work relies on the iconic traditions of pinup art and graffiti, understands that. At its best, Rebels is an argument for the elevation of lowbrow, foreshadowing its transformation into a term of empowerment.
Nanibah Chacon’s work makes up the bulk of the exhibition and is undoubtedly the most impressive on display. The painter devotes most of her energy to crafting memorable figures, but she isn’t afraid of delving into symbolism.
“Azúcar,” one of Chacon’s most striking pieces, is a pinup-cum-portrait of a luscious beauty with a flower in her hair and large hoop earrings, playfully licking a pink, sugared skull. The subject’s eyes are mischievous, as though she’s actively choosing to exert her beauty on the viewer, rather than passively submitting to lustful observation.
Chacon’s forte is amusing characterization. One series depicts four feisty, idiosyncratic luchadoras. Another set of complementary pieces, “Callejeros Martinez Town” and “Callejeros Barelas,” features four head shots: two tattooed Chicano gangsters whistling, and two ladies reacting in very different ways. The blonde is clearly flattered by the attention, but the raven-haired woman raises an eyebrow warily. Chacon delivers her joke with engaging, relatable fluency.
Chacon’s work features not only the subjects of lowbrow art, but also its rich palette. Her mastery of teals juxtaposed with deep, sensual pinks and oranges adds flavor and depth to her paintings.
Unlike Chacon, Carlos “Mr. Went” Rodriguez—an artist whose background is graffiti lettering—keeps his palette coarse and bleak by relying on gray, silver, black and white. Rodriguez’ three pieces in Rebels aren’t much for original iconography, presenting oft-used motifs such as skulls, roses and crosses. But “Y Qué,” his largest piece, is as cryptically affecting as its title suggests. Resembling a complex diary page, the canvas is filled with a list of names lettered in freehand, with stencilled symbols and words such as “redemption” sprawled errantly. Graffiti is a medium steeped in coded meaning—so much work must be illegible for a reason—but Rodriguez’ piece urges the viewer to try his hand at deciphering its secrets.
The black-and-white marker drawings and stencil work by Douglas Miles, Rebels’ final artist, are less moving.
Miles is fond of depicting a single archetype—a young woman with a staid, apathetic expression—and reusing this one image constantly does him no favors. Miles is willing to broach the idea of subtext (one piece is decorated with the words “Apaches,” “Angels” and “Ascent”), but his pieces’ subdued, repetitive quality fails to imbue their shadowy elements with worthwhile depth. Lowbrow art doesn’t benefit from low-impact moves; on the contrary, the style’s embrace of the proudly, pointedly brazen is what has propelled the label far beyond its humble roots.